Do Spiders Play Dead? Facts, Science, Prevention

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Tarantula on mat playing dead

Do spiders play dead? Of course they do! In fact, spiders play dead more often than we realize, and for a couple of reasons that you might never have thought of.

Spiders play dead for a variety of reasons. In pet spiders, it is regularly a sign of dehydration or stress, and so is a warning sign that action is required. Although spiders are predators themselves, they are relatively small and so have developed the skill of playing dead to ward off attack.

We’ve all been there. The big hairy spider, the shoe and the whack, followed by a dead spider and a guilty conscience. Of course, we feel guilty as we toss the hapless spider outside, but then it happens: Legs uncurl, all eight of them in quick succession, and off she goes, scrambling down the bank or across the lawn toward freedom and safety.

Suddenly, our dead spider is alive and well, it appears, as she scurries off out of sight into the dark night. She really had us fooled.

By the way, it is never a good idea to kill spiders, and if there is a way to remove a spider from your home that will not jeopardize your health in any way, use that method instead of ending the spider’s life. If you are unsure about the spider you are dealing with, looking it up is often a good place to start. 

The Science Behind How Spiders Play Dead

Spiders are fascinating creatures, and that which is most fascinating or horrifying for that matter can be their many legs.

Spiders operate on what is known to humans as a type of hydraulic system. To keep it basic, a spider’s skeleton and legs are operated by a fluid pressure build-up. This enables the spider to keep their very long legs outwardly spread in order to walk.

When they die for real, the fluid pressure is lost, and the legs curl up. You can basically call it a day for that spider.

Some spiders can even appear to be dead or playing dead, even by a keen hobbyist who knows them well. For example, people who keep tarantulas know that dehydration can cause the hydraulic system to become faulty, and this, in turn, can create a pose that seems like death or playing dead when it is very much alive.

If kept as a pet, spiders should be well-fed, hydrated and not stressed out. So, a stressed spider will also adopt the playing dead posture.

It could be a dehydration or stress situation that can be remedied, and not throwing the spider out and stressing him out more is very important. Once hydrated and calm, the spider will leave this position caused by physiological reasons. 

It is also important to understand that if you own a spider as a pet, it is not stressed out by its home environment or handling. Many owners choose to use gloves when dealing with their pet spiders and are particularly gentle to avoid the playing dead or stressed out scenario. Make sure your spider’s home has plenty of ventilation holes and is clear so you can see if they appear to be stressed.

The Strategy Of Spiders Playing Dead

A spider under threat can pretend it is dead until it can get to safety, which is a pretty nifty and clever move, considering its small size and ability. They seem to understand their own inner hydraulics, and their legs will curl up as though they are really dead. 

Considering that as a predator, a spider is quite small compared to other predators, this is an amazing thing to do. At some point in their lives, all predators can become prey.

So consider the hefty size of a human and the generally small and harmless mouth of a common spider. What is she or he to do? Bite? Not likely; even this tiny creature knows it stands little chance of surviving that way. Most spider bites are pretty harmless to humans by way of defense.

Instead, they play dead.

They have become so inept at pretending they are dead that they have even fooled scientists briefly. They can play dead for a couple of hours, although this is not common or necessary most of the time. 

One Scientist Got A Real Shock

A scientist investigating a fascinating dead spider was using a pencil to uncurl the dead spider’s legs to get some unusual shots with his camera.  Moving the curled legs gently this way and that with his pencil enabled this keen observer to get some good shots and unusual footage.

As with most small creatures, being gentle and thorough is the way to go.

Then, once he finished placing the spider down, he realized that the spider was still alive as the spider got up, shook itself off and wandered off, so to speak. That is how convincing spiders can be when they play dead. This little fellow even managed to trick a spider scientist!

Dead spider in close up

Why Frighten Everyone And Pretend You Are Dead?

It’s a shock to see a dead spider suddenly become alive again. Or, even worse, be killed, then vanish. One could ponder which actuality is scarier.

Playing dead can really help spiders get out of tricky situations, and often, they will use their keen instinct to know when to use this handy play-dead factor. There is a story in America of a storm causing wolf spiders to land in bucket-loads inside a domestic home. When pest control arrived, they all simply played dead. That is how astute and clever spiders can be.

As mentioned earlier, most spider venom is not made to kill humans but rather small prey. Often, a spider bite will not even slightly injure a human, certainly not scare them off in order for the spider to make a quick escape. Unless, of course, it is a spider that is well known for causing serious injury to humans via their dangerous bites, but they are rarer. 

Also, a spider’s mouth area is tiny, and the fangs that deliver the poison are quite soft, too. Most are not even strong enough to break our skin. So, playing dead is an excellent way for a spider to beat a hasty retreat once alive again. He is basically playing for time, which is a smart move. 

It actually shows how they have evolved to understand when they can put up a fight and when doing something such as playing dead is the better option. This is how evolution can allow creatures to hone their skills, and their survival instinct can kick in to such an extent that they become masters of deception.

A Clever Spider Can Woo A Female By Playing Dead

An interesting and little-known fact until recently is that some species of spiders will play dead to trap a female ready for mating. The female, ever curious, will spy the dead spider and go to investigate. Male spiders are obviously very patient courters.

Once there, the dead male spider reacts quickly and grabs her body, ready for copulation by dragging in her back legs. Scientists were both amazed and surprised by this new finding. It is a mixture of genius and the element of surprise. It is astonishing how good instinct can be and how clever nature is. Imagine any creature understanding they can play dead in order to get what they want.

Spiders Live Longer Lives Due To Using Playing Dead As A Weapon

If spiders are left to their own devices, which is mostly to find insects and mate, they will live a long and happy life. That’s true whether they are outdoor spiders hiding away in leaves and trees or domestic spiders scuttling away into dusty cupboard corners.

So they are, in effect, quite hardy and capable. 

Most spider lifespans are around three years, but there have been spiders living much longer than that, decades even. So, if you do find a spider playing dead, play along with him. Sweep him up carefully and toss him gently away. Do not be surprised if he is long gone shortly after. He is most likely doing what he loves to do. Eating insects and playing dead to find a new mate, just as spiders are meant to do. 

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